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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1446 (08/03/01)

"There are moments when art attains almost to the dignity of manual labor."
-Oscar Wilde

I was searching for an appropriate quote to accompany this review of IS ART: THE ART OF INSIGHT STUDIOS by Allan Gross (Insight Studios Group; $29.95) and, although I had found several good ones, was stopped dead in my tracks by our dear Wilde. Rarely does the best art come in a burst of inspiration. It comes when inspiration is shackled to hard work and the artist's determination to create something wonderful. For over two decades, the artists of Insight Studios have combined art, dignity, imagination, and old-fashioned sweat to create many wonderful somethings.

IS ART focuses on the works of founder Mark Wheatley, longtime associate Marc Hempel, and relative newcomer Frank Cho, as related by Gross, himself an important member of this amazing assemblage of talent. The text is part history of and part tribute to the studio whose anniversary it celebrates.

When I review a comic book or publication, I try to give you the good and the bad of it. There is only one bad thing about IS ART, but you're gonna have to wait until near the end of my review to get to it. Sure, you could skip forward and ruin the suspense, but you would feel dirty about it later.

IS ART is almost too nice a volume for the number of times I expect to flip through it in the years to come. I expect to flip through it a lot because, no matter which page I stop on, I'll find an image worth examining at length and from which I can draw a bit of exhilaration and inspiration and even magic. Thankfully, this book is a sturdy hardcover, beautifully designed, worth every penny of its price. It will hold up to multiple viewings.

Paul Dini, a writer who has received numerous well-deserved accolades for his work in animation and comics, zeroes in on what fuels Insight Studio in his introduction

    I think we have reached an age and a time when the phrase "Sense of Wonder" has lost its sense of wonder. But then I'm faced with the graphic wizards at Insight who still manage to instill that sense of wonder better than any other collection of artists working today...

    [The book is] an impressive testimony not only to the studio's individual artists, but to the spirit of creation and collaboration that keeps Insight thriving.


From there, Gross gives us a richly-detailed overview of the history of Insight: the Baltimore house that is home to the studio, the creation of the studio by Wheatley, the arrival of Hempel and other creators, the friendships which are as great a legacy of the studio as the works to which it has given birth, and the enduring passion to make those works meaningful, emotional, and, of course, insightful.

Gross, a highly respected computer software developer who had originally come to Insight Studios as a fellow fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, discusses his discovery of and subsequent involvement with the Studios and, in doing so, nails what makes this creative entity so special. This section includes a lovely passage, but I'm going to make you wait for it, too, mostly because Gross is a tough act to follow and if I were to put his words up front, you might well leave me standing here as alone as a guy operating a karaoke machine at a mime convention.

Then come the sections devoted to Cho, Hempel, and Wheatley, with Gross guiding us through their professional histories amidst mind-boggling examples of their artistic genius. Line drawings and paintings inspired by the writings of Burroughs and the other great pulp-era fictioneers abound. Works in progress tease us with their promise. And, often, with the turn of a page, you're dazzled with a bona fide show-stopper.

Cho is best known for his LIBERTY MEADOWS comic strip. It is one of the best-drawn and funniest strips around, which means Cho is always getting in trouble with newspaper editors who will never understand how lucky they are to have work of this caliber gracing their ink-smeared pages.

The Sunday strips are where Cho shines brightest. Included in IS ART is a strip which starts off as a reasonable facsimile of Hal Foster's PRINCE VALIANT and quickly transforms into a madcap battle between Val's army and that of Hagar the Horrible. I hurt myself laughing at that one.

Elsewhere in Cho's section, we get a breathtakingly gorgeous Sunday strip of LIBERTY MEADOWS heroine Brandy posing in an elegant gown. There is no joke, just Cho breaking in his new pens in grand style. I bet it drove newspapers editors crazy from sea to shining sea. That in itself would be noble work.

Hempel? Looking through his section of IS ART is like looking at a showing of several different artists. There are erotically-charged watercolor paintings of fantasy and science fiction themes. There are more recent works where the artist's powerful images are driven by geometry and design, as well as his endlessly fascinating "Suit Cases" series.

Hempel's comics work ranges from the gothic horror of BLOOD OF DRACULA to the raucous humor of TUG AND BUSTER to the contemporary fear and romance of BREATHTAKER to the unique combination of human hope and madness that was GREGORY. No matter the genre or setting. Hempel has unfailingly brought a compelling and eloquent emotion to each and every story he draws. As with Cho and Wheatley, I can't conceive of passing up one of Hempel's comics.

Gross calls Wheatley "the consummate storyteller" and looking through this final section of IS ART is an education in classical adventure illustration for our times. Even when his subjects are the pulp heroes of the 1920s and 1930s, Wheatley adds some subtle twist that makes the old new. As a writer, he has conceived such landmark comic books as MARS, BREATHTAKER, and RADICAL DREAMER. As a publisher, he has delivered one exceptional book after another: TITANIC TALES, DOCTOR CYBORG, FRANK CHO ILLUSTRATOR, GRAY MORROW VISIONARY, with more to come.

"More to come" could almost be the motto of Insight Studios. IS ART looks at such current projects as THE BODY, an online strip drawn by Morrow; and Mike Avon Oeming's HAMMER OF THE GODS, an epic adventure of Norse deities and warriors. It also offers the reader tantalizing glimpses of such projects in development as Wheatley's THE FRANKENSTEIN MOBSTER, a clever melding of gangsters and things that go bump in the night. Designed as an online daily strip, the yet-to-be-launched project has already attracted the interest of Hollywood film studios.

Everything that I wrote north of this paragraph was the "good" of IS ART: THE ART OF INSIGHT STUDIOS. As promised, here comes THE "bad" part

This book won't be seen by more than a small fraction of the people who should see it. It won't be seen by many of the creators and editors and publishers who could benefit from exposure to the artistic ideals and integrity of Insight Studios. It won't be seen by many comics readers whose appreciation of the comics art form is sorely in need of real evolutionary progress. It won't be seen by many of the librarians who should have this volume on their shelves and the teachers who should include it in their curriculums. This muse in book's clothing won't be seen by many of the people who, in a better world, might be inspired by its contents to explore their own creative gifts.

Of the partnerships, friendships, and de facto familial bonds that are Insight Studios, Gross writes

    The people who have come through the studio are unique, and at the same time similar, with a sense of shared experiences and values. At the core is an overwhelming desire to create works of art, no matter the price.

    We've fought to maintain our creative instincts in the face of powerful forces: editors, critics, fans, and an industry that seems to fluctuate between being ruled by a coalition of Gandhis and being driven like a pack of lemmings. We've tried to take only the jobs we've wanted to do and to create our own when necessary. We've attempted to shape the industry we are in, and fought for our rights within the one that existed. At times we've tried just to keep our heads above the rising water of a melting pot that drowns creativity. And, at times, we've made waves. We don't take credit for what is not ours, and we've never apologized for doing what we've wanted to do. I found more than a second career at Insight Studios. And I've learned a great deal. I've learned that at some point in our lives we must also create ourselves. And through that, I've found friendship, happiness, and the ability to express and accept myself. What more could anyone ask for?


Well, since he asked, I'd like to ask who I see about getting adopted into the Insight Studios family. I've had all my shots and I misbehave just enough to be interesting.

******

ADDENDUM

Gross e-mailed me shortly after the above column appeared in CBG and named me an honorary member of the Insight family. I would tell you what that entails, but I took an oath.

For up-to-date information on Insight Studios publications, visit their website at

http://InsightStudiosGroup.com


******

ARCHIE DIGESTS

I have this stack of digests and magazines on my desk and the only way I'm going to get rid of it is to write about the various interesting things I found in them. First up are a pair of Archie comics digests.

ARCHIE'S PALS AND GALS DOUBLE DIGEST #59 (August; $3.29) has a number of disturbing images within its pages. The final panel of "A Very Private Club" shows Archie and Principal Weatherbee sitting together in a small kiddie pool, sipping lemonade and watching TV. If Freddy Wertham were still alive and doing his comic book-bashing thing, this scene might make his brain explode. Not to worry, it's perfectly innocent. Even it isn't, the Andrews kid is 60 years old if he's a day.

Somewhat less disturbing is the sight of Fred Andrews camping outside an auditorium with the Riverdale kids so that they can buy tickets for a "Floppy Biscuit" concert. Fred gets down with the kids, snacking on junk food with Jughead and then grooving to tunes with Betty and Ronnie. He even buys a ticket for himself. In the sanitized world of Archie comics, this is the equivalent of having a mid-life crisis.

I got a giggle out of "Cartoonist-At-Large," in which budding comics artist Chuck Clayton gets his first professional assignment. Editor Inkwell of Disaster Comics hires him to do a back-up strip for the company's CATACLYSM title.

"Archie the Otterman" is well-received, but, with CATACLYSM being cut to quarterly frequency, the editor doesn't have any more work for Chuck. He advises the lad to go to college and learn more about design, coloring, lettering, and production, skills necessary for Chuck's future success.

There's a comics-oriented story in BETTY AND VERONICA DOUBLE DIGEST #98 (August; $3.29) as well, a four-page Jughead tale called "Comic Relief." Jug is kicking back reading comics and is joined by Archie, Betty, Dilton, and even Veronica. Some choice exchanges include this one

DILTON: Some of the great science-fiction writers have had stories in comics...Bradbury, Williamson, Hamilton.

VERONICA: Aren't you guys a little old for comics?

BETTY: No way! There are tons of comics readers our age. In this comic book, you can send in your fashion ideas and they have an artist draw them up.

Reggie mocks the rest of the gang for their reading habits. When he asks Jughead why comic books are so great, the needle-nosed rebel responds: "They break through all the restraints of reality. In these stories, the characters do all the things I always wanted to do."

Those "things" include Jughead winding up his arm and punching Reggie out of his shoes and past the moon. Who would have thought the lad had such anger issues?

All kidding aside, however, there is one story in this digest which should never have made it into print. In "Roadblock on the Information Super Highway," Betty and Veronica go looking for dates on an internet dating service. Could the gals possibly be setting a WORSE example for their young readers?

The Internet is NO place for any minor, even one in his or her teens, to arrange face-to-face meetings with strangers. All of us know of the real-life horror stories which have resulted from such reckless behavior, so I'll just end this by saying I am profoundly disappointed in Archie for publishing this story.

******

TV GUIDE

Comics and cartoons have gotten some nice coverage in recent issues of TV GUIDE. The Rugrats appeared on the four "collector's" covers of the July 21-27 edition, which also carried a nice little piece on TNT's WITCHBLADE series, based on the Top Cow comic book of the same name. A week later, in the July 26-August 3 issue of the mag, critic Matt Roush gave the Witchblade series a generally good review, calling it entertaining and "perversely intriguing." He concluded

"While not quite cutting edge, WITCHBLADE is more often sharp than dull."

In addition to the above, the battle between 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment over the latter's MUTANT X series was the lead item in the "Insider" section for July 26-August 3. Fox has hit Marvel with a lawsuit, claiming the new show is too similar to Marvel's X-MEN, to which Fox presently owns the film rights. Leave it to Marvel to get sued for stealing from itself, although, to be fair, it claims its new characters and settings are very different from the X-Men. While the lawsuit and Marvel's countersuit crawl through the courts, head writer Howard Chaykin, a name well known to comics fans, is enthusiastic about the show.

******

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

When ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY arrives at Casa Isabella, the first feature I read is "Jim Mullen's Hot Sheet." Here are some choice bon mots from June and July issues

    JENNA AND BARBARA. A Canadian radio station reporter invited them to party up where the legal drinking age is only 18. "But Dad will never let us go overseas by ourselves!"

    BOZO THE CLOWN. After 40 years, the Chicago TV legend is going off the air. He will be replaced by Chris Matthews the clown.

    A.I. The story of a childlike robot who wants to become a real little boy. Instead, he became President.

    LUKE AND LAURA. General Hospital's long-suffering couple are splitting up after 20 years. It's the seventh-worst thing that has ever happened to them.

    SINEAD O'CONNER. When the Pope read of her impending marriage in an Italian tabloid, he ripped it in half.


Moving right along...

Yancy Butler, who plays WITCHBLADE's Sara Pezzini on the small screen, had this comment on the different between what the comics character wears and what she wears

"I don't know how she does it, but to wear a metal bra and stiletto heels is not my idea of comfort."

That's from the June 22 edition of EW, which also includes a review of Susan J. Napier's ANIME: FROM AKIRA TO PRINCESS MONONOKE. Critic Marc Bernardin gives the book a "B" but faults it for being too scholarly

"Why would anyone who loves anime's unbridled vibrancy want to slog through the antiseptic dryness of a textbook?"

EW's annual "IT" list appears in the June 29/July 6 issue of the magazine and, as usual, comics and cartoons don't get a whole lot of play. Oh, sure, Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire (Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker in the SPIDER-MAN movie) grabbed the cover and "IT Dynamic Duo" award, but that probably has more to do with them being such pretty people than anything else. My reaction to seeing Maguire with his oh-so-chic stubble was that, on a good day, I could probably kick his ass.

Other comics-related mentions

Bob Sabiston is the magazine's "IT animator." His WAKING LIFE got an enthusiastic response at Sundance.

Aki, the "star" of FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN" was the magazine's "IT Virtual Female." She's not bad, she's just drawn. Tom Hanks wants to bitch-slap her.

EW readers voted Marge and Lisa Simpsons (of THE SIMPSONS) "IT television mother and daughter." I cast my ballot for Jon Stewart and Stephen Kolbert of THE DAILY SHOW.

Finally, Frank Miller got the nod for "IT Comic Book Project" for his forthcoming THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES BACK.

Some more book reviews

Ken Tucker gave an "A-" to BIZARRO COMICS (DC; $29.95) when he reviewed the anthology in the June 29/July 6 issue. Me *can* wait to read this book.

One issue later, Neil Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS picked up a "B" from Jeff Jensen. With novels by Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Max Allan Collins, Peter David, and Alvin Schwartz sitting unread on my night stand, I need to come down with a disease just debilitating enough to give me the time to read them.

******

NEWSWEEK

From NEWSWEEK for June 25

    Homer, the poet, gave us THE ODYSSEY. Homer, the cartoon, gave us "D'oh!" The latest additions to the Oxford English Dictionary include about 250 entries you didn't hear about in 10th-grade English. There's "Bollywood" and "gangsta," "Gulf War syndrome" and "road rage." The most ridiculous may be "D'oh!," Homer Simpson's trademark expression. The OED's definition: "Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish."


The July 9 NEWSWEEK featured a brief interview with cartoonist Mort Walker in its "Periscope" section. The main topic of the item was the financial problems of the International Museum of Cartoon Art, which Walker founded 27 years ago, but Newsweek also asked him about the possibility of romance in his BEETLE BAILEY comic strip, to which Walker responded

"They [Beetle and Miss Buxley] hold hands, but y'know, he's not ready yet."

******

THE BIG FINISH

Much to my surprise, I will be attending the WIZARD WORLD show in Chicago from August 17-19. I plan to get together with as many of my CBG and online readers as we can squeeze into an appropriate bar or tavern without the riot squads being summoned. As of when I'm writing this, I don't know the when and the where of this epic gathering. However, if you keep checking my message board here at World Famous Comics, you'll know what's going on almost as soon as I do. I look forward to meeting some of you for the first time and to renewing my acquaintance with those of you who have already met me and are still talking to me. Woo hoo!

I'll be back next Friday with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 07/27/2001 | 08/03/2001 | 08/10/2001 >>

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THE "TONY" SCALE

Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

Tony
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TonyTony
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

TonyTonyTony
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

TonyTonyTonyTony
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

TonyTonyTonyTonyTony
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.



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